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Guns, Real and Unreal

December 07, 1987

It is a grim, absurd sign of our times that legislatures and city councils find it easy to ban toy guns that don't kill and impossible to ban real guns that do. Nevertheless, toy guns in the hands of criminals can be harmful, and a ban on them may just--can we hope?--foretell some distant emergence of sanity about the real things.

State Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) is taking aim at criminals who play real games of stick-'em-up with toy guns that look like anything but kid stuff.

When the California Legislature reconvenes next month, Roberti plans to sponsor a bill to ban the manufacture and sale of toy guns that look real. A ban is worth it in the aftermath of crimes committed with fake weapons and tragedies involving victims killed by police officers who have faced down death and learned to shoot first and ask later whether the gun was real. That was the case, tragically, in 1983, when a young Orange County policeman killed a boy who was playing with a realistic toy pistol at home in Stanton.

Roberti's bill would also make it a felony to brandish a toy gun in a threatening manner. New legislation that takes effect on Jan. 1 will make it a misdemeanor to hold up someone with a toy gun, but a felony classification would be tougher to dismiss and would carry more severe penalties--including the threat of a stint in a state prison. The heavier punishment is warranted.

The Roberti proposal was prompted by an incident in August at KNBC-TV in Burbank in which a man armed with a realistic toy gun walked onto the set and pressed the gun against the back of David Horowitz, a consumer reporter, while he was on the air. The incident has already triggered local responses. The Los Angeles City Council banned the sale and manufacture of the toy guns last week. Burbank, the first municipality to approve a ban on such sales, took action in September. A tough state law would spread the protection throughout California.

The state ban wouldn't prevent innocent games of cops and robbers. Youngsters could continue to play with toy guns as long as their parents had no objections and the toys were clearly just toys.

Although toy guns can't maim or kill, such weapons can be just as frightening as real guns in the wrong hands. The California Legislature should ban toy guns, but it also should keep taking aim at real handguns, too. One of these days it might hit the target.

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